By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
This week, I would like to continue sharing with you excerpts from a newly published book by my good friend, writer, geologist and researcher, Dirk Van Hart of Albuquerque. I was honored in helping him — in a small way — to do research on the Civilian Conservation Corps camps in our area. Dirk has a true passion for this time period, the “boys” at the camps, the camps themselves and the purpose they served. He states in his book, “Today, the ‘boys’ are gone. I deeply miss all of them. This book is my tribute to them.”
Dirk has given me permission to use any part of his book, “Camps and Campsites of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in New Mexico 1933-1942,” and I chose to share what he has found about Chaves, Eddy and Lincoln counties, our part of the state. The work the CCC boys did for the betterment of the environment is truly amazing, as is the time Dirk put into trying to locate the “footprints” of where these camps were, so many years ago.
“This site has a multi-layered and intriguing history. The first part is Fort Stanton itself, on the south side of the diminutive Rio Bonito, but it is only incidental to this narrative. Next is the CCC Camp on the north side of the river, and then there is the German POW camp.
“Fort Stanton was established in 1855 as a military post to protect settlers from the Apache. After the Indian Wars came to an end in the 1890s, the camp’s importance dwindled and it closed in 1896. In 1899, the fort was used as a merchant marine hospital for TB patients — the only such hospital in the nation at the time. The hospital underwent a major upgrade from 1938-1941 to become a modern facility.
“Back in the summer of 1935, the Soil Conservation Service built its camp on the north side of the Rio Bonito, opposite Fort Stanton. Its proximity to the fort was important because the camp received continual electric service from a power plant there. By the end of 1940, the camp was turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the CCC boys moved a few miles to the east to the Girls’ Baca Camp.
“What follows is taken from a superb little book titled ‘Interned,’ by James McBride. (McBride 2008) In September 1939, the German luxury liner, SS Columbus, had the misfortune of being on a cruise in the Caribbean when Germany invaded Poland. The ship’s captain tried to slip back to Germany but was intercepted at sea by a British destroyer. The captain, as per his orders, scuttled the ship. His crew of 576 seamen abandoned ship and were picked up by a trailing American cruiser. Since the U.S. and Germany were not yet at war, the crew became guests, who no one quite knew what to do with. The crew was entrained to the West Coast with the idea of putting them on a Japanese ship bound for home. That didn’t pan out, and for the year 1940, the crew languished on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. By year’s end, fire at the site reduced the island’s capacity and it was decided to house them at the old CCC camp, sitting vacant in Fort Stanton. A few of the original crew were repatriated, but the 410 military age members were entrained east to Carrizozo and bussed to Fort Stanton. On a snowy day in January 1941, they occupied the abandoned CCC building.
“During the year 1941, they spruced the place up and added desirable features, particularly an Olympic-size swimming pool at the foot of the hill that they soon dubbed ‘Columbus Hill.’ But their hearts were not fully in the work because they expected the allies to make peace with Hitler and for them to be repatriated soon. That changed after Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S. on Dec. 11. They suddenly were no longer guests, but POWs for the next three years. The camp was enclosed by a fence, guards were posted and guard towers built. In the summer of 1944, the men built the large recreation hall that stands today. Only after the allied victory over Germany in May 1945 was the crew free to go home. By August 1945, the camp was empty.
“The marine hospital at Fort Stanton later used some of the buildings for storage and the people there availed themselves of the nice swimming pool. Most of the buildings have since been salvaged and the campsite is returning to nature. The trail today leads to a little bridge across the Rio Bonito to the campsite. The first structure to be seen at the southeastern part of the campsite is the guardhouse. Next, to the west, is the big recreation hall, with the German words ‘Erbaut 1944’ (built in 1944) engraved over the main entrance. The roof collapsed, probably in stages, sometime between 1982 and 1995 (McBride 2008,) spelling the beginning of the Erbaut’s demise. The infirmary sits among a group of trees at the southwestern end, and some substantial foundations line the western end. At the north side, at the foot of Columbus Hill is what remains of that fine pool, the pride of the crew of the SS Columbus.
Hondo, Lincoln County
“This late camp existed for only two periods, spring/summer 1941 to early 1942 — hardly enough time to make a mark on the land. The only hint I heard of its location is from handwritten notes by Art Roman, archivist at the Deming Luna Membres Historical Museum, in which he writes that it was ‘10 miles south of Lincoln.’ That less than precise description puts it in the community of Hondo, but nothing is visible via Google Earth in that area. It may have been a mobile camp, leaving no trace. Its location remains indeterminate. This is one of the few remaining SCS camps shut down in the spring of 1942 due to the war effort.
Legacy of the CCC
“Decide the best amount of physical improvements to the American landscape, it was a long-lasting effect of the CCC on young men of the 1930s — the ‘Greatest Generation.’ I therefore close this introduction with the following three quotes. The first by Fred Eberhardt in 1934 (an educational advisor at camp F-17-C in Colorado) is a little long, but is full of meaning and speaks volumes for the hard, focused and meaningful labor:
“‘Two hundred men from every strata of society moved into a wilderness of scrub oak, pinion, and cedar. Many of them hadn’t been employed for months. Many of them were soft in muscle and weakened in morale. Theirs had been a discouraging fight, a disheartening battle to provide the purest necessities of life for their families. Many of them were almost beaten, almost ready to quit.
“‘Seven months have passed. Gradually the road these men are building has crept up the side of the Mesa. Bronzed and hardened in muscle, these men now have a new confidence in their bearing, a new light in their eyes. Some have quit. Those who have stuck are perhaps not aware of the change, but they will find it when they get back to their places in society. Often they grumble and complain, some of them, but watching them build the road, you will discover that the road is really building them.’ (AUDRETSCH 2017)
“And this excerpt from Rudy Police, who had worked with a CCC company at High Point, New Jersey. Upon visiting his old camp area in 1976 and finding nothing there, he wrote an epilogue part of which is quoted below, full of nostalgia. (Cohen 1980)
“‘… there was not one sign or anything telling tourists that the roads they were traveling or the lakes they were fishing in were built by a depression army. For this I will always be sad. Then I felt glad and happy because after all these years, a part of me will always be at Co. 1280, SP-8, High Point Park, New Jersey. Then I had no right to expect camp and everything else to remain the same. Perhaps I went back there expecting to find my youth again, or something to rekindle a fire in a lamp that will for all outward purposes slowly dim, then go out. But until that light goes out, I will always remember the time spent in the CCC.’
“And finally, this one from Roy Lemons (1918-2002,) one of the most eloquent of the ex-CCC boys. His is a statement full of passion.
“‘In the final years of my life, in assessing the most profound happenings, I find the CCC experience the most rewarding of all. Nothing had more impact than that. All that I am was shaped by that 2 1/2 year interval of my life and the 3 1/2 years of the depression that preceded it.’”
I received the following email from Joan and Lawrence Taylor about Roswell’s CCC Camp. They have given their permission for me to share as well:
“The CCC Camp in Roswell was located on Second Street west of Sycamore, just west of where Desert Sun Automotive — now Richland Auto — is located. The camp was demolished in the late 1930s or early 1940s. The boys from that camp built the walls, the swimming pool, and the sunken garden in Cahoon Park. In fact, they developed the whole park and the buildings therein.”
Thank you, Joan and Lawrence Taylor for this information.
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at email@example.com.